Stepping Into the Story: Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty

February 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Part Two: The Sleeping Beauty

If French director Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard explores the timeless tendency of young girls to identify with storybook characters to aid their burgeoning self-awareness, then The Sleeping Beauty, her next film in a trio of fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast will be Breillat’s third), shows how this same story-escapism can create a real identity-crisis shitstorm when it comes to the realm of romance, sex, and bruised expectations.

The Sleeping Beauty turns the visual spectacle dial up a notch from its Bluebeard setting—here we have sprightly sprites, a clan of clattering gypsies, and a be-gloved Jezebel of a Snow Queen, always shown in wavering blue light.

To the same degree, Breillat’s narrative structure gets even stranger. Narratively speaking, The Sleeping Beauty could be argued as less satisfying than Bluebeard, maybe because Breillat attempts some pretty awkward transitions by breaking the film into thirds. First comes the princess Anastasia’s birth and her “normal” childhood, in which she plays by herself, hates her dresses but loves her dictionary, and wants her parents to call her Vladimir. Then she pricks her finger at age 6 with a wooden hair implement, and we have her long dreaming state, in which she befriends another child named Peter and goes on a quest to rescue him from the evil Snow Queen, meeting an odd prince and princess and an eccentric gypsy girl along the way. Finally, in perhaps the most jarring move, Anastasia is suddenly awake, in the midst of puberty and contemporary France, and she has an affair with the moody teenage boy—Peter’s grandson, we’re meant to believe—who finds her alone in her family’s abandoned estate.

In Bluebeard, Breillat’s divergences from the original Perrault story were done on the sidelines: an added framing device and some illuminations of character, but no ballsy renderings of plot. In The Sleeping Beauty, however, she takes great liberty with the familiar fairy tale, starting with the character’s age. The Sleeping Beauty of the title is not the princess we might remember from the stories—for one, she is only six, and not sixteen, when she falls into her hundred years’ sleep. She dreams through puberty, and wakes up one hundred years later, aged ten years. When asked why this is, the fairy who cast the spell shrugs and says, “childhood lasts too long.”

Touche, fairy.

Now, those of you who know your Hans Christian Andersen might be noticing something funny going on, in both my summary and in this trailer:

Do you see it?

Yeah, you see it.

The names are changed, the ending is chopped off, and not once in the film is the name of the story mentioned (except in reference to the titular character), but all the same, it’s there.

For many critics, the most jarring moment of the film was the transition between Anastasia’s dream and her waking up at age 16. But I was at the height of my Breillat-induced confusion when I realized that she was no longer telling the story of the Sleeping Beauty—or at least, not that tale alone. For once six-year-old Anastasia falls asleep, she dreams herself into Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy epic, “The Snow Queen.”

Huh? I thought. Why not just make a movie of “The Snow Queen” by itself? The dream third of the film is beautifully done, and would be a gorgeous remake on its own, probably that both an adult and an astute child would enjoy. I felt cheated at first–why make two halves of different movies and stick them together? What does this woman take me for?

I had to get all the way to the end of the film, puzzle it out in my brain, and try to take the movie on its own terms before the lightbulb came on, and this mish-mosh of stories made any sense.

The dreaming princess Anastasia is a cypher, a stand-in for all girls who seem to dream their way through the long years between knowing about romantic relationships and being old enough to experience one themselves. She’s doing what many of us do to pass that endless time: she’s identifying herself within a story, and crafting a perfect relationship, building a model of future love within her imagination.

As I said, not once does anyone mention that “The Snow Queen” is a favorite story of Anastasia’s in order to explain her dream, but who needs to, really? Those who get it get it.

What’s important is that the dream, and the story told within it, contain an imagined, nearly perfect partner–the boy Peter, a stand-in for Andersen’s character Kay in “The Snow Queen” itself. And once that partner is lured away by the glamorous, mysterious Snow Queen, Anastasia (in place of Andersen’s Gerda) is in a position to wake up at 16 knowing enough about sexual power that she wants to use it, and that she’s on a mission to find her man.

The dream ends unfinished, as Anastasia talks with the Lapp woman (or the Finn woman, Breillat seems to smush them together a bit, but at this point, who’s keeping track?) about what she must do to win Peter back.

When she suddenly wakes, aged 16 and catapulted 100 years forward in time, and sees an adolescent boy sitting in front of her, she wonders if her quest has ended—has she finally found the Peter of her girlhood longing? No, the boy answers, but his great-grandfather was named Peter. Anastasia decides that he’ll do, and begins a very Victorian affair in which Johan visits her abandoned estate every afternoon to slowly unbutton her intricate dress to the numbered button of her choosing.

When Anastasia feels pressured to give her virginity up to him, however, this quaintly erotic flirtation takes a sadly contemporary turn. Suddenly she’s just a confused teenaged girl, and he a hormonal boy. There’s nothing left of romance in their relationship, just the looming knowledge that it isn’t how either of them imagined it.

“The Snow Queen” is forgotten, in a different world entirely, leaving the viewer to wonder if spending one’s childhood in a fantasy world only causes that child to be woefully unprepared for real-life romance.

What saves the film from becoming a mere cautionary tale is the importance placed on the woman’s sexual power, which Anastasia slowly begins to unravel upon waking with the help of another character in her Snow Queen dream, the free-spirited robber girl . Were it not for the unexpected appearance, post-dream, of this character, all grown up and up for girl-on-girl action, the final third of Breillat’s film would be a downer indeed. But her illogical appearance suggests, maybe, that while the relationships we create in our imaginations with men might not turn out as expected, we can sometimes count on the female relationships to pull through, and surprise us. Now, that sounds trite, but it’s the best I can come up with to respond to a truly bizarre piece of filmmaking (let me know if you have any better explanation as to why Peter may be dead and gone and have a great-grandson, but the gypsy girl is still alive, and looks to be in her thirties as opposed to Anastasia’s girlish seize ans).

So what, in the end, is Breillat saying? To me, both The Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard speak to girlhood, aspirations, and disappointment, and how we project ourselves into stories in order to imagine for ourselves a life that we don’t yet have—and then how those stories can’t save us from the realities of life and love. But what a downer! Are fairy tales completely useless road maps of feminine behavior, then? That might be one way to read Breillat’s film, but not the only one.

For me, Breillat doesn’t seem to be claiming that stories are useless when it comes to girlhood self-identification, but something more subtle: she’s suggesting that stories have power, and should be handled with care, especially when they are stretched to fit the world as it exists when we are old enough to step out into it. That there’s duality in these stories, and that we should never assume that the obvious happy ending is the only part we should pay attention to. After all, while Anastasia and Marie-Catherine, Bluebeard’s young bride, may be forced into an early awareness of the world by Breillat’s brave direction, they also find their own sources of power in it.

Even the notion that the girls’ idealism is thwarted becomes nuanced in Breillat’s eyes: neither good nor bad, but something that transcends either description: while talking about her film The Last Mistress in a 2008 interview with The New York Sun, she said “I am eternally, devastatingly romantic, and I thought people would see it because ‘romantic’ doesn’t mean ‘sugary.’ It’s dark and tormented — the furor of passion, the despair of an idealism that you can’t attain.” Despair and romance, mixed up together–that seems, to me, to describe what a fairy tale is in a much more interesting way than “happily ever after.”

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